There has been uncertainty surrounding who actually painted this work and who the sitter was. Today, it hangs in the Met Museum as Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes and is attributed to Marie Denise Villers. But even this attribution is only probable at best. Here’s a rough timeline regarding the painting’s attribution. If you want more information, art historian Anne Higonnet has an excellent article on the painting that you can read here.
- 1801 – The painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon and then spent several generations in the Val d’Ognes family private collection. During this time, it was thought that it was by French artist, Jacques Louis David.
- 1917 – The Met Museum acquired the painting and adopted the attribution to David.
- 1951 – Art historian, Charles Sterling, questioned the attribution to David, partly because David was absent from the 1801 Salon. He proposed that it might have been Constance Marie Charpentier who painted it. She did exhibit at the 1801 Salon and painted in a similar style to that of the painting. The Met Museum accepted this new attribution.
- Around 1980 – The Met Museum withdrew any attribution from the painting and the sitter and renamed it Young Woman Drawing.
- 1996 – Art historian, Margaret Oppenheimer, proposed that it was painted by Marie Denise Villers. Refer to the article by Higonnet as to why. This was accepted by the Met Museum and stands today.
I usually wouldn’t show this much interest in the attribution timeline of a painting, but in this case, it raises an interesting point about how the perception of the artist affects the perception of their artwork.
Since its creation, the painting has been critically claimed for the most part. This is despite the numerous changes and uncertainty surrounding the artist who painted it. Perhaps the mystery added to its allure. However, the critiques appeared slightly more favorable for the artist who was initially thought to have painted it, David, who was a prominent male artist. Of course, the sex of the artist should have no part in how we perceive an artist or their artwork. But back then it did, unfortunately.
Once the painting changed attribution to Charpentier, some critics began to notice minor flaws. For example, critic and historian, James Laver wrote in 1964, “Although the painting is extremely attractive as a period piece, there are certain weaknesses of which a painter of David’s calibre would not have been guilty.” The artwork didn’t change, but some people’s perception of it did.
The takeaway here is that an artwork is rarely considered in isolation. We judge it, whether aware or not, in relation to the artist and the circumstances surrounding it. Sometimes this is favorable to the artist, sometimes it’s not. But whatever the case, we artists have little control over how the world perceives us and our art. Think of the early Impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. They were dismissed then, yet revered today.